Even the disappointments are informative. One of my hopes for the archive work was to find out whether my grandfather made any notes about “Fruit”, which would have been the title of the planned third volume of his autobiography. The first volume was called Vurtslen, or Roots (note: this was way before Alex Haley. The published English translation was called My Jewish Roots). The second volume was called Tsvaygn, or Branches (the English translation, In the Thicket). The third volume was never written.
The reason I was so eager was that the two volumes had only brought us as far as his coming to the United States, when he was seventeen. He came here without a word of English, having trained for his whole life up to that point to be a Talmudic scholar. In ten years time he went from knowing no English and having few marketable skills, to being a fluent English speaker, married, and a dentist. I wanted his description of how he got there, and what it felt like.
Among his archived papers (most of which are letters), a four-page typed document caught my attention fairly early. Called “Roots, Branches, and Fruit,” it was a talk that he originally intended to deliver in Buenos Aires. From the title, I assumed that I would get some insight into what he had planned to include in that third volume. Instead, I learned that I was unlikely to find what I was looking for.
The talk turned out to be about his journey to writing directly about his childhood. He had wanted to write about the shtetl all along, he said. The stories he wanted to tell were clear in his mind, but it was not until his fourteenth book that he did. Why? He was, he admits, influenced by the prevailing zeitgeist.
Most of those in my grandfather’s generation who came to America for a better life wanted to put their shtetl lives behind them. The many and various idealists among the immigrants– socialists, communists, Zionists and even assimilationists– may have argued about everything else, but, like the enlightenment reformers of the previous generation, they all stressed in unison the need for a break with the past.
In Roots, Branches, and Fruit, my grandfather quotes Zhitlovsky, Ahad Ha Am, and others, to make the point that nationalists saw their project as incompatible with recent history, requiring a cultural break as well as a political one. The Jews needed to be raised out of the mud. Writers steeped in such a view could only write about the shtetl with contempt, or with nostalgia, as a quaint way of life that needed to be left behind. Or the shtetl could be idealized, but only as long as it was not regarded as relevant to modern life or contemporary problems.
Simon could not, he said, write about the Jewish shtetl in those veins. He could not bring himself to depict the shtetl as a fixed, simple and backwards way of life; nor as some lost (irrelevant and anachronistic) ideal; nor still as a bitter, degraded and oppressed way of life. The people he remembered were sophisticated, creative, and deeply morally engaged. So, instead, he turned to folk material. In that way he could write anything he wanted to about Jews and their customs, provided it was framed as “long, long ago.” Only years later, when he was able to transcend his contemporaries’ jaundiced views of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in general, and their views of its religious practices in particular, could he write about his shtetl and its people the way he remembered them.
And so it came to pass that I, reading this, realized my yearned-for lost volume “Fruit” not only did not exist, but could never have existed in the form that I wanted it. My grandfather’s autobiography was not a conventional autobiography at all. For all the interesting stories he told about his early life and his teen years, his chief aim was polemical. He was writing not about himself, but about his world. Above all, he wanted to convey the virtues and dynamism of that world. He wanted people to think about and value shtetl life differently. Even had he come to write a third volume, it would not have been about how he got his bearings in America, or his love for my grandmother, or the demands of being a dentist and writing at the same time. One way or another, it would still have been about the world that formed him, about why he believed its ways still have something to tell us now.